January 25, 2009 – Roadside bomb attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan hit an all-time high last year, killing more troops than ever and highlighting an “emboldened” insurgency there, according to figures released by the Pentagon.
Last year, 3,276 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated or were detected before blowing up in Afghanistan, a 45% increase compared with 2007. The number of troops in the U.S.-led coalition killed by bombs more than doubled in 2008 from 75 to 161. The Pentagon data did not break down the casualties by nationality.
Roadside bombs in Afghanistan wounded an additional 722 coalition troops last year, setting another record.
In Afghanistan, “an emboldened, increasingly aggressive enemy has increased the use of IEDs,” Irene Smith, a spokeswoman for the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the Pentagon’s lead agency for combating roadside bombs, said in an e-mail.
“The trajectory of trends in 2008 has been in the wrong direction,” Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Sunday of the IED records. “We’re losing the war. This shows a greater capacity on the part of the Taliban and other insurgents to cause more death, destruction and challenges to the legitimacy of the Afghan government.”
Army Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said in an interview last month that Taliban and other militants use roadside bombs to kill troops, terrorize civilians and sow disorder.
“It’s part of a change in tactics by the insurgency to go into more complex, smaller-scale, more asymmetric ambushes that attack softer targets,” McKiernan told USA TODAY. “IEDs don’t discriminate between civilian and military so it’s the single biggest killer in Afghanistan — civilian and security forces.”
President Obama has pledged to devote more resources to Afghanistan. McKiernan has asked to nearly double the size of the U.S. forces — the largest group in the international coalition — to 60,000 troops. Combat engineers who clear roads and defuse bombs are among the forces that U.S. and NATO commanders need, McKiernan says.
Vice President Biden warned Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation that fighting in Afghanistan will intensify and that “there will be an uptick” in casualties.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to rush as many as 10,000 new armored vehicles to Afghanistan to counter roadside bombs. Commanders there have issued an urgent request for a lighter, more maneuverable version of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, known as MRAPs. Few paved roads and rugged mountain terrain prevent the use of MRAPs in parts of Afghanistan.
Devices useful in Iraq to counter roadside bombs may have to be “ruggedized” to work in parts of Afghanistan, Navy Capt. Vincent Martinez, deputy commander of Task Force Paladin, said in an interview at Bagram Air Base last month. The task force combats IEDs in Afghanistan.
“We’ve got a fight on our hands,” he said. “This is not just affecting the future of Afghanistan. It’s for the future of the entire region. We cannot allow terrorists to have safe havens.”
O’Hanlon, who says he supports McKiernan’s goal of providing better security for the Afghan people, said reversing the trend in roadside bomb attacks is critical to success there.
“People in Afghanistan need a reason to join the army and not the Taliban,” O’Hanlon said. “They need some sense of hope.”
In Iraq, where roadside bomb attacks are far more prevalent, the number of IED attacks continues to fall. There were 8,999 such attacks in 2008. The all-time high was 24,302 in 2006.
Better security in Iraq has prompted civilians there to provide coalition forces with more tips on where bombs are planted and who is making them, Smith said.
Since the two wars began, 570 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and 4,220 in Iraq.